And so it's time to crack open Perceforest and take a look at this book which has been sitting on my bookshelf, unopened, gathering dust since 2020.
Seriously, this is the first time I have actually opened this book, so this will be charting unknown territory for me.
The original Perceforest is one of the great fantasy epics, a million-word story over six volumes. Which Hollywood has not yet touched, or reduced to three feature-length movies.
Perceforest, The Game Book
Perceforest is an Aeon Games book - not available from DriveThruRPG. As such, when you buy Perceforest from Aeon Games, you are buying a hardcover book with a free PDF.
From this point forward, any reference to Perceforest in italics refers to the game. Perceforest in bold type refers to the 1340 romance.
Perceforest is set in "a Land of High Chivalry and Wonder." Penned by Mark Shirley, Perceforest allows Players to create knightly, noble characters from an early feudal age. The setting is "fictional world of high chivalry set against the forces of the primal wild." The themes are High Chivalry, Wonder, Existential Menace, Colonialism, and Sacred Kingship. The Characters are meant to be chivalrous Knights, defending Civilisation - the Twin Kingdoms - against the evil that is The Forest.
Civilisation in Perceforest is Early Feudal. A generation before the setting, Bretaigné was in the thrall of the native enchanter-knights, until the two Brother Kings invaded and and either drove them out or exterminated them. The gentle culture now permeating much a Bretaigne society was brought to the land, marked by a massive land clearance which removed The Forest from the face of the land, and confined it to small enclaves of primal wild.
Sources include Perceforest: the Prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain by Nigel Bryant (trans.), 2011, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, the only modern English translation of the complete Perceforest corpus; A Perceforest Reader by Nigel Bryant, The Romance of Reynard the Fox, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, The Dictionary of Medieval Knighthood and Chivalry, The Hunting Book, Boutell’s Heraldry, Uprooted by Naomi Novic, Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, and The Red Knight by Miles Cameron.
Chapter Two, The World, features the history of Bretaigné, daily life In Bretaigné, the Kings’ Law, politics, heraldry, The Forest, and mythology. Alexander The Great is namedropped here as Alexaunder - could this make Perceforest the first crossover title? - and it describes the formation of the Twin Kingdoms and the anointing of the Brother Kings to drive back the Mauvaise Lignaige and hem in The Forest. The Kings, Betis and Gadifer, fought many battles, but it was the Battle against Darnant deep in The Forest which earned Betis the title of "Perceforest" due to his having pierced the Forest to slay the most evil of the Mauvaise Lignaige.
This chapter describes how civilisation is centered around vills (the progenitor term for "village," "ville," and "villain"), spread out in concentric circles of settlement, with cities and other centres dotting the terrain. The days of the week have names such as Crone's Day, Kings' Day, and so on - something to get used to in this setting - and similarly, the year is divided into seasons. Page 8 has the Agricultural Year as a table. So far, so Ars Magica.
The chapter describes the lives of the simplefolk (peasantry) - their foods, clothing, and pastimes. Similarly, the gentlefolk are also described, along with their clothing, foodstuffs, drink, and pastimes - mostly jousting and hunting, by the looks of it. Gentlefolk titles and terms of address are listed, along with the polytheistic religion, the cashless feudal economy, and life stages from birth, reception, and marriage, through to death and funerals.
The Law follows. Both Kings have agreed to a single body of law, applying across both the Twin Kingdoms. Read The Court of Arms on page 14. It describes how the gentlefolk are punished by admonishments, abatements (a visible punishment applied to a coat of arms) and debasement for the seven Crown Crimes of "rape, treason, refusing succour, breaking an oath, murder of innocents, brigandage, and swearing a false oath." This is taking chivalry seriously. Characters are expected to give their word and honour it.
Incidentally, the table on page 15 gives a possible explanation of where the term "Poindexter" comes from.
What follows next is a look at the politics of the Houses Major and Minor - the alliances, petty bickering, outright rivalries and bitter enemies which make up the million factions of gentlefolk in the Twin Kingdoms. So far, so Harnworld.
There is a brief, but tantalising introduction to Heraldry. All that "per fesse bendy argent" stuff you might have seen, and wanted to know about. It really barely scratches the surface, but it does allow you to understand what they are on about when describing someone's Emblazon.
The Forest is described next. If you haven't read Mythago Wood or its sequels, go and find a copy and read it. This is about how the humans look upon Nature as a wild, bewildering force, which must be beaten back constantly. The Mythology section is Perceforest's mythos, with The Forest standing in for Chaos.
Chapter Three, The Twin Kingdoms, is the geography chapter. It begins with The Kingdom of Loegria, comprising Belerion, The Black Island, Borre, Cambenic, Hurtemer, Listinoise, and Norgales; then The Kingdom Of Albanie, comprising Basgorre, Garloth, Hautgorre, Orcanie, Pedrac, Royalville, Sorelois, The Wild Lands, and Coriney; and other places.
Locations are listed with a paragraph describing each place (Castle Darnant is literally carved out of a vast oak tree, for instance, with two boughs shaped like a ram's horn). There are some box texts describing adventures taking place at Castle Darnant and within Darnant Forest, and other box texts in this chapter describing adventures taking place at other selected locations. The major characters of Loegria are then listed, including King Perceforest - who has been afflicted with a curse, a backlash bit of revenge from The Forest.
Each county or Duchy is listed, with principal towns or locations, followed by key people living there. Important magical locations have a Magical Strength % rating: Darnant's Forest and the Forest of Wonders have ratings as high as 100%. Locations with a Magical Strength contain weird stuff. And these feel like Regio from Ars Magica.
Chapter Four brings in the chargen rules. Here, you have rules for cultures, careers, Passions, Reputations, Paths, and the factions available to join. Options include Gentlefolk, Simplefolk, and Talking Animals. The rest is what you expect from chargen: Characteristics, Attributes, Skills, Passions.
The various species from Fioracitta - Bestia, Longane, Ophidians, and even Monacielli - would fit in nicely. Just a hint, folks.
Oh, another nice piece of terminology. You know the old phrase "Have at ye, varlet!" ... well, you get to find out that it isn't a domesticated animal that hunts rabbits, after all. Those are ferrets. Varlets are scumbags in your own Kingdom, but useful spies when they're lurking on some other person's land. Good to know.
Passions are not to be overlooked. Nor are Reputations. You get three Passions. One must be you at your best; one, you at your worst. Talking Beasts get a free Passion, The Call of The Beast. Tied to them, yet separate, are Reputation. You get two: Gallant, and Knavish. You decide which of those two Reputations scores higher.
The next part is about naming your characters. There's a table. Have fun with this. It is just crying out to be turned into an Excel spreadsheet to allow random generation of useful passwords.
The next bit is Equipment, and this goes into detail about what your characters can expect to wear, carry, and drag around.
Paths are next. Your character chooses a Path to follow, such as the Path of Franchise, or the Path of Justice, or the Path of Mercy. Each Path has oaths to swear. Paths more or less replace Cults and Brotherhoods.
We're picking up from page 69, the College of Arms, next time.
Edited by Alex Greene